That Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is a happily married man with kids sits in opposition to the kinds of films he makes. He doesn't set out to make violent films, he says, it just happens. Unlike in Hollywood he makes them on a small budget with a lot of help from his actor friends.
His 2009 film, the ninth century Norse warrior tale, Valhalla Rising, which never released here, wouldn't have been made without the presence of Mads Mikkelsen. Ryan Gosling helped propel Drive into an international hit and since the star has re-teamed with the director for Only God Forgives, that film has gained a lot more attention than it might have, with many critics believing it has more in common with Valhalla Rising than Drive.
Only God Forgives upset many a Cannes critic when it premiered in competition on the Côte d'Azur this year. Given the jury was headed by Steven Spielberg, it was never going to win a prize. It did however take out the jury award at the Sydney Film Festival, something quite baffling given the presence of some fine competing films, particularly the Australian gem The Rocket and The Act of Killing. As Only God Forgives now releases around the globe the Sydney win is being widely touted, and there's no doubting a lot of curiosity surrounds the film. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 93 per cent want to see rating, while critics are pretty much split down the middle in their reviews.
To my mind Refn is above all a provocateur, something he has in common with his good friend Gosling, who had been a fan of Refn's Pusher trilogy and his 2008 film Bronson, which also won the best film prize in the SFF competition in 2009. Gosling greatly enjoyed his experience making Drive with the director and immediately agreed to replace British actor Luke Evans when he dropped out of Only God Forgives to play Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit films.
Gosling of course was keen to pick up as many tips from Refn as possible as he went on to direct his first feature, How to Catch a Monster, a fantasy thriller starring Christina Hendricks as a mother swept into a dark underworld. We probably shouldn't expect too much of a straightforward narrative from Gosling, who was shooting the film when I spoke to Refn in Cannes.
Are you trying to push the boundaries of cinema?
It's not something you try; it just comes naturally. I like to put myself in difficult situations and having to find a way to solve them. I'm pretty at ease with things like this. I like what I do and I'm very lucky I've been able to do it.
How do you want this film to be perceived?
I don't have these plans. I'm more interested in how people perceive it because it's interesting to see how they want or need to read things into it. I find it very exciting because everything is very individual.
Was the screenplay so lean from the beginning?
It was more westernised. There was much more explanation of the magic, but I realised that was the wrong approach, because then I would just be making a western film in Asia and I wanted to make an Asian film. I wanted to stay true to the sense that here there are two worlds. There's the real world and the magical world that are interlinked and nobody questions it. Nobody has to explain that. It's just the process of their lives. So that I think was what I boiled it down to at the end.
Where did the mother-son relationship between Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) come from?
We needed to find something tangible and accessible and I thought it could be interesting to take a fight movie and make it about how a man who is chained to the womb of his mother and the only way to release himself is to travel back into the womb. So everything becomes metaphorical and that's a very interesting world of filmmaking, because it's all about the subconscious and layers of information.
Ryan delivers an even more stoic performance than in Drive.
Performing like that is probably one of the hardest things you can do. Or for KST to perform dialogue when it's a one-way discussion is quite tricky too. What Ryan did is extraordinary because he is able to portray all these emotions without even moving. It was the same with Mads in Valhalla Rising.
Why does such a gentle guy like yourself make such violent films?
It's like asking the leopard why are you so beautiful and so vicious at the same time. It's who you are.
Only God Forgives has upset people upset a lot of people.
That's so weird because it's so non-violent compared to so many other things that are being projected or seen. It only means I must be very good at what I do.
How do you feel about the polarised reviews with some critics giving it five stars and some barely one? You were worried initially.
I feel so relieved, because love it or hate it I was like the pleasure's all mine. It's like being punk rock. You want to say, “Fuck you!” but at the same time you want to be loved.
But you're not from that era. How did you become like that.
I know. but it's counterculture. It's like you've got to rebel against your parents but you still want their love.
The reviews for Drive were more positive.
No they weren't. It was very, very, very polarised. Then everybody forgot they didn't like it then suddenly they loved it. It was interesting yesterday seeing people hating it, then another screening was set up for them. Then you kind of know.
People are comparing this film to Valhalla Rising.
They forget the equation because it actually went from Valhalla Rising to Drive to Only God Forgives because the character of One Eye went into Driver then went into the Thai police lieutenant. They're the same character played by three different actors.
What is that character?
It's a mythological creature that has a mysterious past but cannot relate to reality because he's heightened and he's pure fetish.
Why did you make the frequently haughty Kristin Scott Thomas so outrageous here?
Because she asked. She said, “I have to be different; I have to be something else than what I used to be. I said, “You're preaching to the choir, baby”.
You've said Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace as archetypes for her character. How did you conceive this?
Well, the Donatella Versace came from her; I came with the Lady Macbeth.
At what age can your kids see this film?
What's the latest on your Barbarella TV series about the iconic sex symbol (once played by Jane Fonda) who fights evil?
I'm writing it at moment and will be shooting in the UK early next year. It's based on a French comic book from the 70s. No thoughts regarding the lead actress as yet.
What do you think of Ryan Gosling's directing debut, How To Catch a Monster?
I've seen the script. It's great.
Is it violent?
(Silence but smug look… )